A tough sell for equipment vendors

19 May 2006

When handset production first moved to China , it was simply an extension of the manufacturing lines based elsewhere in the world. The design and production engineering teams in the home office would replicate the processes, including testing, in the new manufacturing lines in China . But, as more manufacturing moved to China, and (more importantly) as local expertise grew, then more responsibility and autonomy has been given to the Chinese designers, production engineering, and test engineering teams to develop their own processes.

Because the Chinese test engineer is relatively new to mobile-phone manufacturing and is not locked into the Western philosophies of test, he can and does look at testing from a different perspective.

One major reason for this different perspective is the low labor costs in China . With abundant labor at hand, the Chinese test engineer is not locked into the mantra of 'total automation' when developing the test strategy for a new handset. The approach is to automate when appropriate rather than trying to automate fully. The focus is on keeping total costs down, which is not necessarily the same as total automation.

While the Western test engineer wants to keep total costs down, he is locked into a legacy of large capital and intellectual investments in existing test methods. In addition, as production and test have moved to China , he may no longer even exist as many of the home offices have cut staff in their test-engineering departments. All of this can make the home office more resistant to change in test philosophies.

Test equipment suppliers will feel the impact of this different philosophy in two major ways. With lower test costs as a driver, the Chinese test engineer wants test equipment that offers only features truly needed. Additional equipment features have little or no attraction to him.

Though the Chinese test engineer may initially perform the same number of tests as his Western counterpart, he is more likely to scrutinize the need for each test and the level of test resolution that others might use just because it was always done that way in the past. In keeping with his focus on keeping costs down, the Chinese test engineer tends to keep accurate cost-of-test data and closely monitor how long each device is in a test fixture. Therefore, for test equipment vendors, it's important for them to provide equipment that is more sensitive, more accurate or more consistent, so users can tighten up tolerances, increase yields and reduce test costs.

The second impact is that test equipment vendors must be able to describe why particular tests - therefore, features on their equipment - are needed and, most importantly, how they will lower costs. At the same time, the Chinese test engineer views this level of customer service as a "given," and he will pressure equipment vendors to provide extensive support at low or no cost: One more indicator of China 's commitment to reducing handset testing costs.

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